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Staying upright in winter weather: traction devices
by on Thursday, November 21, 2013  (2 comments)

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After my winter running post last week, I saw a few interesting topics/questions come up on winter running so I'd like to delve a little deeper into a few topics. First, tools to help keep traction while running through the winter.

First things first, there are times when nothing will give you great traction. At these times, you may need to adjust your running. Take short, quick steps, keeping your feet closer to directly under your center of gravity. Slow down - a lot - and even stop to walk if necessary. Especially when changing direction. I will possibly write more about this later. That said, what we put on our feet can improve our chances of keeping our feet under us in bad conditions.

The second thing to note is that different methods work in different conditions. Snow and ice can both present problems and what works best for one may help for the other but what is best for one may not be best for the other. On that note, here are my suggestions for both snow and ice.

Snow

The main problem when running in snow is that most road running shoes don't have enough tread to get down into the snow and get some grip. The best solution I've found for this is to get a pair of trail shoes that have an aggressive tread pattern. For those of you who like minimal shoes, look into cross country flats. These shoes are basically like snow tires for your car. The treads will get down into the snow and give you a better grip. Devices like Yaktrax (I'll discuss them more later when discussing ice) might help because the coils and spikes will play the role of the tread that gets deeper into the snow but, in my experience, the tread of trail shoes or cross country flats works as well as anything.

If you're running in good packing snow, you might find the snow clumping up in your treads and reducing your traction. Trail shoes and cross country flats are usually pretty good at shedding snow but there is some snow that is just too stubborn and you need some help. An old trick from high school and collegiate cross country teams is to spray the bottom of your shoes with non-stick cooking spray. Just as the spray will help keep your food from sticking to your pans when baking, it will help keep the snow from sticking to your shoes while running.

Ice

The main problem when running on ice is different. No amount of rubber is going to penetrate the smooth, hard surface. If the ice is pitted, the tread on trail shoes or cross country flats may help but it won't be a cure all. If the ice is smooth, the trail shoes or cross country flats may be useless. So we need to look elsewhere. In short, we need to add sharp metal edges that will chip into the ice, giving us some traction.

There are several methods for doing this. I already mentioned Yaktrax, also pictured at the top. I question the value of the coils on smooth ice but the spikes in the picture above would work well. There are other similar products but Yaktrax are the most popular for runners and, with the strap that goes over the top of the foot, seems like the most sure to stay in place while running.

If you're a minimalist runner, you might consider cross country spikes. With these, you get a nice combination of the tread to help with snow and, to some extent, on pitted ice plus metal spikes to help with ice. I've been using these with a lot of success over the past two winters and my only complaint is that I didn't think of this sooner.

If you're concerned about prices, there is another option that I used for years before trying cross country spikes. This would be the screw shoe. I know, this sounds absolutely crazy. Most shoes, though, have a pretty thick midsole that can allow you to use at least a 1/4 or 3/8 inch screw with no problem. Get the screws into the rubber soles of your shoes, don't over tighten, and it takes a lot to have them fall out. Just be aware of how thick your soles are, especially if you're a minimalist. If you're using shoes with air or gel pockets, you also have to be cautious about placement so you don't penetrate the pockets. Sheet metal screws work very well. The lip on the head is great for cutting into the ice to get traction.

In the end, all three of these options (Yaktrax or a similar product, cross country spikes or screw shoes) do the same thing. They get metal on the ice. If the metal can chip into the ice, you get improved traction. Not perfect traction. You still need to be careful. However, you can run with more confidence and fewer problems on ice with these than without.

Beware of cars!

One final piece of safety advice I want to mention. You can do things to help yourself keep traction but always think of others. If you're running on roads that you have to share with cars, consider the traction they will have. What happens if a driver overreacts to your presence and oversteers or brakes too hard? What happens if someone is going too fast for the conditions and simply loses control? Do you have a safe escape route? How do people drive on the roads you run on? Do they drive slowly, safely and cautiously, especially in bad conditions? Or do they drive fast even in bad conditions? Keeping your feet under you is of limited benefit if you have a few tons of steel sliding out of control toward you at 50 miles per hour.

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2 comments
Ed:

Metal screws actually work very well.

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Ryan:

Before I tried the screw shoe, I was very skeptical. Two things took me by surprise when I first tried them:

1) How well even short screws stayed in.
2) How much grip they got even on smooth ice.

Since then, I've gone to cross country spikes, which work equally well in my opinion.

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